Opinion: We need to invest in parks and nature as a prescription for better health

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Amidst the chaos of the COVID pandemic, Albertans spoke out loud and clear: “Hands off our parks.” And it seems the government heard this message as demonstrated in their latest pledges and recent budget announcements — at least in part.

This budget is, however, disappointing in its lack of vision for holistic protection of our municipalities, our natural spaces and important species, as well as threatening accessibility of areas by imposing increased user fees. How can we put a monetary figure on something like the natural world that has so much inherent value, and provides innumerable vital services to us all? These are “natural” services most of us take for granted: supplying a steady source of fresh drinking water, protecting us from floods and droughts, offering important habitat for wildlife, sustaining traditional practices, holding sacred spaces, supporting physical and mental well-being, as well as providing countless recreational and sustainable business opportunities.

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And after one year into the pandemic, Albertans are voicing a shared understanding that natural places are truly essential and need protection. The number of us flocking to our city parks, foothills, Rockies and provincial parks during the past year has been remarkable. The numbers alone speak volumes about how important access to nature is for human beings. For instance, Kananaskis Country had a record-breaking 5.39 million visitors this past year, highlighting that more — and not less — support and investment are needed now.

People of all ages and abilities are already experiencing what science is just beginning to quantify: that there are amazing health benefits to being outside in nature. Parks and nature are necessary to our survival. It is very timely that while we have had to look to our own backyards for recreation and escape during these difficult days of COVID, a new initiative called Park Prescriptions, or PaRx, is hiking out across Canada. Starting in B.C., and now in Ontario, physicians and other health-care providers are being given the tools to discuss nature’s positive effects for their patients and actually provide “nature prescriptions.” From the PaRx website hosted by the BC Parks Foundation, we see that nature prescriptions were named one of the top global wellness trends in 2019. And with good reason; research shows that a dose of nature helps kids and adults feel happier and healthier.

These health impacts are powerful: from reducing risks of heart disease and cancers, improving our mental health and ability to focus, all the way to feeling that sense of belonging and community when you’re grounded in a place. Just to name a few. If a pharmaceutical company could market this, they’d make a lot of money! In fact, there are studies showing that when we do translate all the wonderful things that nature does for us into dollars and cents, the figures are staggering: for example, researchers in Australia found that national parks and protected areas save an estimated US$6 trillion globally in mental health care costs. Using comparable populations, this extrapolates to over $20 billion in health benefits for Albertans, roughly equivalent to the entire 2021 provincial health budget. An investment in parks is an investment in our collective health.

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As health-care providers and park/nature enthusiasts, we know that the well-being of people goes far beyond the services of our clinics and hospitals. Nature Prescriptions are one way that we can and must start the conversation about the importance of nurturing a healthy planet. Visit https://www.parkprescriptions.ca/and ask your health-care provider about how nature can be good for you.

We close with an invitation to find solace and comfort by spending time outside in our municipal and provincial parks, and to remember that these resources are not simply always there for us; these places and institutions need protection, funding, and respect. Our future health and well-being depend on it.

Andrea Hull is a family physician and lecturer at the University of Calgary and sits on the Alberta regional committee for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; Sonya Jakubec is a nurse and professor at Mount Royal University and a member of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment; Doug Klein is a professor of family medicine at the University of Alberta; Dallas Seitz is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Calgary; Clark Svrcek is a family physician and lecturer at the University of Calgary.

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